Moving America Beyond Single-Issue Activism

Issue activism may not be effective in the current Republican era. Our election system is being attacked and our democracy is very sick. To build a new American democracy, we activists must change our tactics.

The Women’s March inspired me more than any populist event in my lifetime. In one day, three to five million Americans stepped into the streets together and became activists. It helped put faces on our electoral majority. Which raises the question, how is a Republican minority able to control all three Federal branches of government and two-thirds of state legislatures?

For a while now, we’ve failed to organize our majority against the generalized challenge modern Republicans present, deceptively packaged interests of wealthy elites and global corporations and a willingness to undermine democracy to win elections.

So how exactly can we refocus America on its people’s best interests?

Certainly, the Democratic Party has left a vacuum of leadership and no clear vision. Its own alignment with corporate interests has weakened its credibility as a force for change, and to some extent activists like the women’s marchers have stepped in to fill the void.

Issue-Based Activism Plays Into Republican Strategy

Historically, activists have provided potent, proactive leadership toward justice and equality in America. But in today’s political environment, we seem to be conditioned simply to react.

When police kill black men, Black Lives Matter has led the response. To fight Trump’s immigration policies, the ACLU helped us rally at airports and in courts. As Republicans attacked the health care law, we called Congress and packed town halls. To stop the Dakota Access oil pipeline, we fought alongside Native Americans at Standing Rock. When Nazis marched in Charlottesville, many marched against them and risked their lives.

These issues are certainly worth fighting for. But gradually, the Republican Party has learned to manipulate us by keeping us on defense.

It’s why they relentlessly attack immigration, gay marriage, abortion rights, marijuana laws and gun control. Not only does this strategy solidify their base, it also triggers us into action, drains our resources and dilutes our energy. Many wealthy Republican donors don’t have an ideological stake in these wedge issues but they’ve mastered them as tools to win elections, cut taxes and delay common sense reform. We’re increasingly puppets in preserving their status quo.

In a truly representative democracy by the people and for the people, activists contribute to our communities by raising awareness for important issues, educating us and guiding us on the paths to a healthier, more just future. The Founding Fathers, though imperfect, were radical activists, revolutionaries. In an ideal world, society at large elevates these voices. Yet today, Republicans attack activists – especially those who are people of color, LGBTQ, women – and they’ve continued to promote and even begun to legalize violence against them.

Our Democracy is Very Sick

Today, our democracy is very sick. The GOP, together with Fox News, actively divides Americans, spreading racism, sexism, hate, anger and fear, and has doubled down on destroying our election system. Gerrymandering has made a mockery of the people’s will and Citizens United has allowed Republican donors to essentially buy seats in government.

They leverage these victories into further attacks on voting rights, voter registration and voter access. Hackers have demonstrated vulnerabilities in our voting systems, many of which leave no paper trail, leaving our elections open to manipulation by foreign powers. Twelve red states and three blue states continue using voting machines that produce unverifiable election results. Looking ahead, the Trump administration is working to weaken and destabilize the 2020 Census, which will determine the next allocation of congressional seats and Electoral College members for each state.

Cracks in our electoral system have also led to the corruption of our Supreme Court. The Republican Senate’s blockade of Obama appointee Merrick Garland was just the most recent example. Three conservative justices – Alito, Roberts and Gorsuch – were appointed by Republican presidents who lost the popular vote. In fact, Bush may never have been elected in 2000 had the court’s conservative majority not stopped Florida’s recount. And his appointments of Alito and Roberts will remain clouded by Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell’s extensive efforts to rig the election against Kerry in 2004.

In short, Republicans are playing the long game for totalitarian control of our government.

single issue activism

Challenge of single-issue activism

Yet we activists go on fighting for the individual issues we care about. We march for this. Sign internet petitions for that. We launch boycotts. We donate, fundraise, call elected officials, phone bank and get out the vote. And the GOP demonizes us and easily channels and contains our efforts.

Issue-based activism in a corrupt system like ours wins just enough battles to keep us believing it works. But ultimately, we’re losing the war and we’re increasingly vulnerable. Republicans need control of only one more state legislature to begin efforts to amend the Constitution.

We can’t achieve our goals trying to fix patchwork leaks in our democracy against increasingly corrupt opponents. Certainly we’ve won important victories this year, but the opposition is dismantling our constitutional protections. We can’t rely solely on elections while Republicans continue their attacks on the foundations of our representative democracy.

It’s Time to Re-Evaluate Our Efforts

It’s time to re-evaluate our efforts, to unite with a common uncompromising vision to build a strong, healthy democracy in America, perhaps for the first time.

Together, we must demand a voting bill of rights, broad electoral reforms including verifiable elections, vote by mail, and making election day a holiday. We must fight to abolish money in politics, gerrymandering and the Electoral College. Essentially, we must align all of our efforts toward this Unified Democracy Platform. Only with this foundation of justice can we leverage our diverse majority for long-term victory on the issues we care about.

If we do not change our tactics now, we may well be staring slack-jawed at the news on election night 2018 as Republicans maintain control over Congress, and in 2020 as they solidify their control of the three branches and enough legislatures to rewrite the Constitution. We can’t wait for elections.

The Republicans and their wealthy base fear our growing popular majority. They’ve kept America stuck in our past of fossil fuel reliance, wars and bigotry. We absolutely must momentarily set aside our individual goals to come together and break their hold on our electoral system. Only then can we move America into the future driven by compassion, science, equality, and justice. Only then can we address climate change, and plan thoughtfully for the economic disruption caused by automation and technology. Only then can we dismantle the foundations of institutional racism, sexism and inequality.

Only when elections truly reflect the will of the people can we move America forward.

(Next post will discuss activism tactics in support of a Unified Democracy Platform. Subscribe for free above, to be notified when it’s available.)


Posted by Jeff Reifman

Jeff is a writer, activist and technologist residing in the Pacific Northwest. In 2018, he developed the code for and